ANCIENT CURES, CHARMS, AND USAGES OF IRELAND.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO IRISH LORE.
May Day in Ireland.
Every race since Creation has tried to express man's intuitive belief in the invisible world by some visible image, or occult symbol, or mystic legend; and thus the primitive traditions of humanity have been faithfully preserved as a sacred ritual that it would be fatal to disregard.
In Ireland the ancient usages are still adhered to as firmly as they were three thousand years ago, when they expressed a religion, and the gods of the people were the visible forces of nature.
The awakening of spring to life and beauty, after the death-sleep of winter, especially touched the human heart with joy and hope, and was celebrated with garlands, and music, and song. Mystic symbols were fashioned to represent the mysteries of nature, and strange mystic stories of the rush of spirit-life through the world were repeated by every successive generation till they became indelibly stamped on the national heart and memory.
They are still recited at the popular festivals by the professional village bards, and crooned over by the old women at the wakes and christenings, or told with awful solemnity to the listening children as they crouch round the turf fire of a winter's night, eager to hear the weird stories of witches and demons; of the dead who walk in their white shrouds on certain nights, when to meet them is fatal to the living; or of the mysterious fairy race, the fallen angels of heaven, who have been cast down to earth to expiate their sins, and who live in crystal caves paved with gold beneath the sea, or in the mountain clefts, where the caverns are lit by the diamonds that stud the rocks, and who sip nectar from the cups of the flowers, and weave their gossamer robes of the sunbeam and the glittering dewdrops. And many a pretty girl, as she listens, longs to dance in the moonlight with these fairy beings under the scented hawthorn tree, for the Sidhe (the fairies) are more beautiful and graceful than any of the children of earth, though a deep sorrow rests ever on them, knowing that at the last day they are destined to eternal death, while the human race will live in heaven for ever- more.
A number of ancient traditions circle especially round May Day, called in Irish La-Bel-Taine (the day of the sacred Baal_fire), because in the old pagan times, on May Eve, the Druids lit the great sacred fire at Tara, and as the signal flames rose up high in the air, a fire was kindled on every hill in Erin, till the whole island was circled by a zone of flame. It is a saying amongst the Irish, "Fire and salt are the two most precious things given to man." Fire, above all, was held sacred by them, as the symbol of Deity and the mystic means of purification, and three things were never given away by them on May Day — fire, milk, or butter — for this would be to give away luck. No one was permitted to carry a lighted sod out of the house, or to borrow fire in any way. And no strange hand was allowed to milk the cow, for if the first can were filled in the name of the devil there would be no more milk that year for the family — it would all be secretly taken away by the fairies.
The first three days of May were very dangerous to cattle, for the fairies had then great power given them of the Evil One; therefore they were well guarded by lighted fires and branches of the rowan, and the milkmaid made the sign of the Cross after milking, with the froth of the milk. Nothing else was so effective against witches and demons.
During the first three days of May, also, it was necessary to take great precautions against the fairies entering the house, for if once they gained admittance they worked mischief. They would come disguised as old women or wayfarers in order to steal a burning coal — a most fatal theft — or to carry off the herbs of power, that were always gathered on May morning with the dew on them.
But the best preventive against fairy or demon power was to scatter primroses on the threshold, for no fairy could pass the flower, and the house and household were left in peace, though all strangers were looked upon with great suspicion.
A young student was nearly killed one time by the people, for they saw him walking up and down on May morning on the grass, while he read aloud from a book in some strange language; and they concluded that he was trying to bewitch the herbs of grace, which are for healing. Fortunately, however, a priest came by, and having examined the book, found it was a copy of Virgil; so he informed the excited crowd that the young man was simply going through his college duties in the grand old language that St. Patrick had brought to Ireland, and which was sacred for ever to the use of the Church. On this they were pacified, and the young student was allowed to depart in safety.
A curious superstition is still prevalent among the people that on May Day the ancient kings of Ireland arise from their graves and gather together a great army of the dead, horse and foot, and they tell the troops that the hour has come to fight for Ireland, and they must be ready to march as commanded. Then the spectral warriors clash their shields and respond with wild cries to the kings and chiefs and captains of the nation. The last time the kings arose from their graves was, it is said, in 1848, when the tramp and the shouts of the marching men resounded distinctly through the hills; but when the people rushed to the spot where the shields clashed and the voices sounded, not a form was visible; the hosts of the dead warriors had vanished into air. Many of the old customs still remain among the peasants. Among others it is thought right and proper to have the threshold swept clean on May Eve. Ashes are then lightly sprinkled over it, and iu the morning the print of a foot is looked for. If it turn inward a marriage is certain, but if outward then a death will happen in the family before the year is out. The cattle also are still singed along the back with a lighted wisp of straw, and a bunch of primroses is tied to the cow's tail, for the evil spirits cannot touch anything guarded by these flowers, if they are plucked before sunrise, not else. But the rowan tree is the best preservative against evil; if a branch be woven into the roof, the house is safe for a year at least, and if mixed with the timber of a boat no storm will upset it, and no man be drowned in it for the next twelvemonth.
May Day in old time was the period of greatest rejoicing in Ireland, a festival of dances and garlands to celebrate the Resurrection of Nature, as November was a time of solemn gloom and mourning for the dying sun; for the year was divided into these two epochs, symbolising death and resurrection, and the year itself was expressed by a word meaning "the circle of the sun," the symbol of which was a hoop, always carried in the popular processions, wreathed with the rowan and the marsh marigold, and bearing, suspended within it, two balls to represent the sun and moon, sometimes covered with gold and silver paper. This emblem of the hoop and the balls is still carried on May Day by the villagers, though the meaning has been lost when it was consecrated to Baal, according to the solemn oath of the Irish, "by the sun, moon, stars, and wind." At the great long dance held on May Day all the people held hands and danced round a tall May bush erected on a mound, the girls wearing garlands, while the pipers and harpers, with gold and green sashes, directed the movements. The oldest worship of the world included homage to the tree and the serpent- Trees were the symbol of knowledge, and the dance round the May bush, which simulated the sinuous curves of the serpent, was part of the ancient ophite ritual associated with the worship of Baal. The dance and the May bush still exist, but the fairy music seems to be lost for ever. In the ancient days it was heard upon May Eve on all the hills of Erin, and the most beautiful tunes were thus caught up by the people and the native musicians. Carolan, it is said, the celebrated bard, acquired all the magic melody of his notes by sleeping out on a fairy rath at night, when the fairy music came to him in dreams, and on awaking he played the airs from memory; but since his time the fairies seem to keep silence on the hills, and no more exquisite airs have been added to the pathetic national music of Ireland.
The educated and learned are as susceptible to the mysterious prescience of an invisible spiritual world as the illiterate Irish peasant. Every one is conscious of the strange influence upon life of omens and dreams, and of days when the malific powers, whose mission seems to be to torture the human race, are fearful and strong, and ruthlessly crush all our wishes and resolves, showing us how weak and powerless we are to order life as we desire, or to gain control over even the simplest events; of days when all things are fatally unlucky; of the presence of certain persons who chill the heart and stifle the eloquence of the lips; or of others who pour a warm flood of genius into the veins and make us divine for the moment that we are under their magic spell. So we may sympathise with the Irish peasant, who has given definite forms to the superstitions that we only dimly feel, and recognise the kinship of all races and classes by the universal intuition, common to all humanity, of a mysterious, unseen world of spiritual beings around us. These are for ever influencing our actions or directing our destiny, though we cannot hear them playing their sweet music on the hills, or see them dancing under the scented hawthorn, like the Irish peasant, who watches the Baal fires on the mountains flaming up through the midnight to announce the coming of May.
The fairies exercise a very powerful influence for evil at Bel-Taine, or May time; so as a preservative against their malice and the fairy darts, which at this season wound and kill, it is the custom on May morning, at sunrise, to bleed the cattle and taste of the blood mingled with milk. Men and women were also bled, and their blood was sprinkled on the ground. This practice, however, has died out, even in the remote West; but the children are still lifted through the fire when it has burned low, and the cattle are driven through the hot embers — as in ancient times both children and cattle were "passed through the fire to Moloch" — and the young men still leap through the flames after the dance round the burning bush is over, and they carry home a lighted branch of the sacred tree to give good luck to the family during the coming year.
May Day in pagan Ireland was the great festival of Baal, or (Grian) the Sun. Then the fires were lighted on the Druid altars, and the great sacrifice of the year was offered. November, the month of gloom, was also sacred to the Sun, when the fires were lighted to guide him in his descent to the kingdom of death; and at both seasons the sacrifices and ceremonies were made sacred through fire, the great symbol of the creative, all-sustaining God, and the source of all life through the universe.
The origin of the May bush, or burning tree, was thus described by an intelligent peasant, who had it from his father, an old man about eighty years of age, well versed in the old traditions of the people: "The lighted May bushes," the old man said unto me," were first set up in honour of the great Milesians, who gave battle on May Day to the Tuatha de Danans, and conquered. Then a powerful magician of the Tuatha caused innumerable fiery darts to go forth against the Prince of the Milesians to kill him; but, in passing, they were all stopped by a bush that stood between the chief and the magician, so that a flame arose, and the bush withered and burned away. And from that time the May bushes are lit by fire and left to burn, for so evil is carried away from the land; and we believe and know that no lightning, nor thunder, nor evil enchantments can ever enter a house before which stands the sacred bush with the yellow flowers that represent the flame of fire; and the people dance round it, and pass their cattle through the smoke, with also the young children, to preserve them from the spell of witchcraft." This was the story told by the peasant, as he heard it through the traditions of his father.
THE MAY DAY DANCE
Dancing was the most important of the sacred rites in all ancient religions; and the circular serpent-dance round the tree has been practised from the remotest antiquity.
In Ireland it is still retained as the favourite pastime of the people on the La-Bel-Taine (May Day), when all the young men and maidens hold hands, and dance in a circle round a tree hung with ribbons and garlands, or round a bonfire, moving in curves from right to left, as if imitating the windings of a serpent, though quite unconscious of the cryptic meaning of the movement, which is, in reality, a true ophite hieroglyph of the earliest traditions of humanity concerning the serpent and the tree.
ADVICE TO MAIDENS
On May morning, before sunrise, go out to the garden, and the first snail you see take up, and put it on a plate sprinkled lightly with flour, place a cabbage-leaf over, and so leave it till after sunrise, when yon will find the initial letters of your lover's name traced on the flour.
Should the snail be quite within his house when you take him up, your lover will be rich; but should the snail be almost out of his shell, then your future husband will be poor, and probably will have no house or home to take you to when you wed him. Therefore take good heed of the warning giveu to you by the snail, or avoid trying your future fate if you are afraid of the result.
Great precautions must be taken on May Eve, for the fairies have fatal power over the human race upon that night, and steal the children and bewitch the cattle if they can find an opportunity; therefore no door should be left open after sunset, and young persons should not go out alone on the hills, nor listen to the singing of young girls in the night, for they are fairies in disguise, and will work harm. And, above all, fire, should not be given away, for fire is the life of man; and if any food, boiled, roast, or baked, is left over from May Eve to May Day, it must not be eaten, but buried in the garden, or thrown over the boundary of the town-land for the dogs, because the fairies stole away the real food at night, and left in its place only lumps of turf sod, made to look like food, and to touch them would be fatal.
MAY DAY USAGES
On May morning the peasant girls delight in gathering May dew before sunrise, to beautify their faces, and they believe that the sun will then have no power over their complexions to spoil them by the summer heat ; and no fire is lighted in any home until the smoke is seen rising from the chimney of the priest's house, which, to the modern world, is like the first fire on the Druid altar of old, that gave the signal of the uprising of the Sun-God.
Whitsuntide has always been considered by the Irish as a very fatal and unlucky time — for the people hold that fairies and evil spirits have then great power over men and cattle, both by sea and land, and work their deadly spells with malign and mysterious efficacy. Children born at Whitsuntide, it is said, are foredoomed; they will either have the evil eye, or commit a murder, or die a violent death. Water, also, is very dangerous; no one should bathe, or go a journey where a stream has to be crossed, or sail in a boat, for the risk is great of being drowned, unless, indeed, a bride steers, and then the boat is safe from harm. Great precautions are necessary, likewise, within the house; and no one should venture to light a candle without making the sign of the Cross over the flame to keep off evil; and young men should be very cautious not to be out late at night, for all the dead who have been drowned in the sea round about come up and ride over the waves on white horses, and hold strange revels, and try to carry off the young men, or to kill them with their fiery darts and draw them down under the sea to live with the dead for evermore. A story is told of a man named Murrey, who stayed out late fishing one Whitsuntide, quite forgetting it was the night of the death-ride.
But at last he neared the shore, and drew up his boat to unload the fish, and then make his way home with all speed. Just at the moment, however, he heard a great rush of the waves behind him, and looking round he saw a crowd of the dead on their white horses making over to the boat to seize him; and their faces were pale as the face of a corpse, but their eyes burned like fire. And they stretched out their long skeleton arms to try and lay hold of him, but he sprang at once from the boat to the shore, and then he knew he was safe, though one of them rode over close to him by the edge of the rocks, and he knew him as a friend of his own, who had been drowned the year before; and he heard the voice of the dead man calling to him through the rush of water, saying: "Hasten, hasten to your home, for the dead who are with me want you for their company, and if once a dead hand touches you, there is no help, you are lost for ever. Hasten, or you will never see your home again, but be with the dead for ever." Then Murrey knew that the spirit spoke the truth, and he left the boat and the fish on the beach and fled away home, and never looked back at the dead on their white horses, for his heart was filled with. fear. And never again did he go out to fish at Whitsuntide, though the dead waited for him to seize him, but he came not, and lived henceforth safe from harm. At this season, also, the fairy queens make great efforts to carry off the fine stalwart young men of the country to the fairy palace in the cleft of the hills, or to lure them to their dancing grounds, where they are lulled into dreams by the sweet, subtle fairy music, and forget home and kith and kindred, and never desire to return again to their own people: or even if the spell is broken, and they are brought back by some strong incantation, yet they are never the same; for every one knows by the dream-look in their eyes that they have danced with the fairies on the hill, and been loved by one of the beautiful but fatal race, who, when they take a fancy to a handsome mortal lover, cast their spells over him with resistless power.
A case of this kind happened some years ago in the County Wexford. Two brothers, fine young fellows of the farming class, were returning home one evening in Whitsuntide from their day's holiday, when, to their surprise, as they crossed a broad, beautiful field, lit up by the red rays of the setting sun, they saw a group of girls dancing, and they were all draped in white, and their long hair fell floating over their shoulders. So lovely was the sight that the young men could not choose but stop and watch the dancers; yet, strange to say, they were all strangers; not a familiar face was among them from the whole country round.
And as they looked and wondered, one of the girls left the dance, and, coming over to the younger brother, laid her hand on his arm, while she murmured softly in his ear: "Come, dance with me, Brian. I have waited long for you. Come, come!" and she drew him gently away.
Then Brian flung down his stick on the ground, and taking her hand, they were soon whirling away in the dance, the handsomest pair that ever trod a measure on the green sod. Long, long they danced, till the red light passed away, and the darkness began to cover the hills, but still they danced on and on, for Brian heeded nothing save the young girl with her long hair floating on his shoulder, and the fire of her eyes that burned into his heart. At last the elder brother called to him, "Brian, come home; leave the dance; the mother will be waiting for us! "Not yet, not yet," answered Brian;" I must finish this round. Leave me, and I will follow you. So the elder brother left, and he and the mother watched and waited till midnight for Brian's return, but he never came. Then, the next morning, the brother went to see after him, searching everywhere, though in vain. And all that day to sunset and the night he searched, still no tidings could be had. No one had seen him in the dance, nor the young girls with the white dresses and the floating hair, though when the neighbours heard the story they looked very solemn, and said there was no help for the doomed young man, for the fairy power was strong at Whitsuntide, and no doubt they had carried him down under the earth to the fairy palace, and he would never, never come back to his home again.
Then the poor mother fell into terrible grief, and she sent for the wisest fairy-doctor in the place, and asked his advice. Now, the old man came of a great race who had known the fairy secrets and the mysteries through many generations, though they kept the knowledge to themselves, and would tell no one how they gained power over fairies and demons. "Well, now, my good woman," he said," the fairies have your son, for the daughter of the great fairy chief loves him, and will not let him go. And if he has eaten their food or drunk of their wine no one can help him, not even I myself, until a year has passed by. But next Whitsuntide, when the fairies come for their mad revels and dances out of the heart of the mountains and up from the depths of the sea, they will bring your son with them, and if my power can reach him he will be free from this witchcraft, and the spell shall be broken. So let his brother go and meet him in the same field at the same hour, and there he will find him dancing in the sunset with his fairy bride; or go yourself, if you are alive, and I will give you a spell and a charm that has power to break the strongest fairy thrall." So when Whitsuntide came round, the elder brother set out on his search, and there, sure enough, in the very same green field, with the red sunset streaming down, was the group of young girls in their white dresses dancing to the music of the fairy pipes; and in the midst was Brian, dancing with his fairy bride, and her long yellow hair floated over his shoulder, and her eyes burned into his like coals of fire.
"Come away, come away, Brian," cried the brother; "you have been dancing long enough, and the mother is at home, sad, and sorrowful, and lonely, waiting for you. Come away, before the darkness falls and the night comes on." "Not yet, not yet," answered Brian; "I must finish this dance." And the fairy bride wound her beautiful white arms round him and held him fast. So the brother lost heart, for he feared to enter the circle lest the enchantment should fall on him; and he went back home to tell of his failure.
Then the mother rose up, and taking the charm which the fairy-man had given her, she hung it round her neck and went forth to look for the missing son. And at last she came to the field and saw him dancing and dancing like mad, with the witch- girl in his arms; and she called to him,"Come back, come back to us, Brian darling; come back; it is your mother calls."
But Brian danced on and on, and never looked at her nor heeded her. Then, for the sorrow made her brave, she went over in the very midst of the fairy dancers with their glittering eyes, and taking the spell from her neck, she flung it over Brian, and clasping his arm laid her head down on his shoulder, weeping bitterly. Then, all at once, the demon spell was broken, for a mother's tears have strange power, and he let her take his hand and draw him away from the magic circle; and the form of the fairy bride seemed to melt into the sunset, and the whole scene passed away like a mist, the music and the dancers with their floating hair, and only Brian and his mother were left in the field. Then she led him home, but he spake no word, only lay down to sleep, and so for seven days they watched by him, but still he slept. Then at the end of the seven days he rose up strong and well as ever, and all the past seemed to him only as a dream. Yet, for fear of the fairies, his mother still made him wear the magic spell round his neck to keep him from harm, though in process of time a still stronger spell was woven round his life, for he married a fair young girl of the village before the next Whitsuntide, good as well as beautiful, and from that time the fairies and witches had no more power over him, for a pure, true wife is the best safeguard against witchcraft and devils' wiles that a man can take to his heart as the angel of the house.
HALLOWTIDE IN IRELAND
The ancient Irish had two great divisions of the year, Samradh and Geimradh — summer and winter — corresponding to the May and November of our calendar; one represented the resurrection of nature and all things to life; the other the descent of all things to darkness and death.
La-samnah, or Hallow Eve, was considered the summer end, the first day of winter, when the Sun-God entered the kingdom of death; therefore, on that night of gloom the great sacred fire was lighted on every Druid altar to guide him on his downward path; and the Druid priests sacrificed a black sheep, and offered libations to the dead who had died within the year.
It was a weird season of dread and ill omen; and for this reason November was called by the Irish "the month of mourning" Then it was that Baal, the lord of death, summoned before him the souls of the dead to receive judgment for the works done in the human life; and on the vigil of Saman, or Hallow Eve, the dead had strange power over the living, and could work them harm, and take revenge for any wrong done to them while they lived. Even now, according to the popular belief, it is not safe to be near a churchyard on Hallow Eve, and people should not leave their homes after dark, or the ghosts would pursue them.
For on that one night of the year power is given to the dead, and they rise from their graves and go forth amidst the living, and can work good or evil, no man hindering; and at midnight they hold a festival like the fairies of the hill, and drink red wine from fairy cups, and dance in their white shrouds to fairy music till the first red dawn of day. For Hallow Eve is the great festival of the dead, when their bonds are loosed, and they revel with mad joy in the life of the living. And if on that night you hear footsteps following you, beware of looking round; it is the dead who are behind you; and if you meet their glance, assuredly you must die.
The first day of November was dedicated to the spirit that presides over fruits and seeds, and was called La-mas-abhal, the day of the apple fruit; but this being pronounced Lamabool, the English settlers corrupted the word into lamb's-wool, which name they gave to a strong composition made of apples, sugar, and ale. So on this night in every house the table was piled with apples and the gathering of the nut trees, and handfuls of nuts were flung into the fire by the young people to burn; for it was believed that strange and startling prognostications of fate and future fortune could be made from tie ashes. Many weird and fearful rites were also practised at this season to obtain a knowledge of the future, for all incantations at Hallowtide were made in the name of the Evil One; and this solemn and gloomy ritual of death and sorcery lasted through the entire month of November, until a prophecy of hope, as it were, arose with December, called by the Irish Mi- Nolagh, "the month of the new-born."
The number two is esteemed the most unlucky of all numbers; therefore the second day of November was appointed for the sacrifice to the dead, and certain incantations were used to bring up the spirits from the grave and compel them to answer questions. But for this purpose blood must be spilled, for it is said the spirits love blood; the colour excites them, and gives them for the moment the sensation of life. However, during the incantations, very strange and fatal results sometimes happened to the questioner. On one occasion a dead man in his shroud answered the call, and drew away the girl who had performed the rite from the midst of the people assembled; but the fright turned her brain, and she never afterwards recovered her reason.
On the Vigil of Saman, or Hallow Eve, the peasants of Ireland used to assemble with sticks and clubs, the ancient emblems of laceration, and go about collecting barley cakes, butter, eggs, meal, and all things necessary for a feast; likewise money to purchase the black sheep, so important for the sacrifice. After this candles were lighted, before which they prayed for the souls of the dead, and at midnight the unholy practices began, from which the young men and maidens tried to learn the secrets of the future. Then the hemp seed was sown in the name of the Evil One, and the girls would hang a garment before the fire, and watch from a corner to see the shadowy apparition of the destined husband come down the chimney to turn it; and a ball of yarn was flung from the window, when the apparition would appear below and wind the yarn, while the Paternoster was recited backwards.
But the incantation before the looking-glass was the most fearful of all, for the face of the future husband would appear in the glass, though sometimes a form filled up the surface of the mirror too terrible to describe. A young girl once practised this evil rite all alone in her room, the door being closed. After some time a violent scream was heard, and when her friends rushed in to the rescue they found her fainting with terror.
Yet she kept silent, and would reveal nothing, and next night she announced her intention to repeat the spell all alone, with closed door. They tried to dissuade her, but in vain. Alone she entered the room, and a profound silence followed. Her friends thought no danger was to be feared, and they were jesting and laughing when a terrible shriek resounded from the apartment, and on entering they found the girl lying dead upon the floor, her features horribly contorted, while the looking-glass was shivered to atoms.
Another practice is to carry the looking-glass outside, and let the rays of the moon fall on the surface, when a face will be revealed, connected for good or evil with the future fate of the holder of the mirror.
The young girls also visit the neighbouring gardens at night, blindfold, to tear up cabbages by the root. If the one first seized is a close, white cabbage, an old man is the destined husband; but if an open, green head, then a young lover may be hoped for. Another custom is to make a cake of yellow clay taken from a churchyard, then stick twelve pieces of caudle in it, and, kneeling down, recite a form of witch-prayer while all the candles are lighted, and a name is given to each one of them. According as the lights burn out, so will the fate be of the person whose name it bears, and the first that is extinguished betokens death.
To obtain a knowledge of the future is the object of all the strange and mystic rites practised at Hallowtide. The young girls sometimes rake out the ashes of the fire overnight, making a perfectly flat surface on the hearth. This is done in the name of the Evil One, and the result is sure to come in a certain and fatal sign, for in the morning the print of a foot will be found distinctly marked in the ashes.
If the impress is perfectly flat, it indicates marriage and a long life; but if the toes are bent down into the ashes, death will inevitably follow.
They also make a cake of flour, mixed with soot and a spoonful of salt, bake it, and eat it. It will cause thirst, and if a man offers a drink at the time, the girl will assuredly be married before the year is out.
The young men seeking brides have other forms of incantation. If a man on Hallow Eve creeps under the long, trailing branches of the briar on which blackberries grow, he will see the shadow of the girl he is to marry; but he must first pronounce some words too awful to be written down, for they come of the Evil Spirit's teaching.
And if a gambler hides under the tendrils of the briar, and invokes the aid of the Prince of Darkness, he will have luck at cards, no matter what colour he bets on. But the words he uses are too diabolical to repeat; only a witch-woman can utter them, and she whispers the spell into the ears of the man at dead of night, none hearing her.
From old times in Ireland the people attached great importance to the grave-clothes in which one they love is buried; for a belief is prevalent that the dead continue to wear the clothes they last used in this world whenever they may have occasion, to appear on earth. It is, therefore, considered very lucky for the dead person to have a new or a good suit of clothes in his possession at the time of death, for then he will always appear respectable when he goes amongst the other ghosts, as they rise from their graves and meet together on the night of the festival of the dead. The nearest relation may wear the clothes in the daytime, but at night the dead come back and require them, should they have any work to do in the neighbourhood of the churchyard. For this reason no alteration in size is permitted of the death garments, as the ghost would be exceedingly angry if, by any such practice on the part of the relations, the clothes proved to be a misfit, just, perhaps, at the very time when he wanted to begin his midnight rambles amidst the living on the solemn and awful November festival.
If possible, therefore, the people procure a religious habit for the burial, as this distinction, they know, will be esteemed a high compliment by the dead, and give them dignity amongst the other ghosts. Thus, it is told that a poor woman having lost her only son, expended all her hoarded savings on the purchase of a habit for his burial, and in this he was laid in the grave; yet night after night for a week her son appeared to her in dreams, looking unutterably sad, though he spake no word.
On this the mother became much troubled in her mind, and prayed the Lord God to show her in what way she had failed in her duty as regarded the burial rites. So the next night in her dream she saw her son again, and he came over quite close to her bed, and looking at her with hollow, mournful eyes, said, "Look here, my mother, do you not see how all my legs are scorched in purgatory, because the habit you gave me is too short, and only comes down to the knees? So unless you can add a good piece to lengthen it, my legs will be burned off entirely before ever I come before the angels in heaven; and as to going out with the other ghosts for the festival, why, they would only mock at me.
Help me, then, my mother, before it is too late."
And with that he departed; but the poor mother heeded his words, and next day she had the coffin raised and opened, and with her, own hands she sewed a good piece of stuff all round the habit to lengthen it and make it proper and right. Then the coffin was closed and laid in the earth again, and after that the mother was troubled no more with dreams, for the dead rested quiet in the grave, and the soul was at peace.
Amongst the most solemn of the adepts who practised weird and mystical charms at Hallowtide, and recited prayers to the Evil One, to give them a knowledge of the future, there was a certain class "who followed the strictest rules of living, and abstained entirely from the stimulating poteen during the performance of their incantations; but others, who desired power over demons and evil spirits, worked up their energies to a species of delirium by copious draughts of the national beverage, which they considered a potent strengthener of the organs of the body, and powerful to give courage to the heart of a man if properly taken with honey and bread, so as prevent harm to the liver or the brain, according to the advice of the native doctors.
The English settlers were not slow to recognise the merits of poteen, and Richard Stanihurst, in his description of Ireland, thus eulogises the Irish stimulant:
"Being moderately taken, its sloweth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth phlegm, it abandoneth melancholy, it relisheth the heart, it lighteneth the mind, it quickeneth the spirit, it cureth hydropsis, it pounceth the stone, it keepeth the head from whirling, the eyes from dazzling, the tongue from lisping, the mouth from maffling, the teeth from chattering, and the throat from rattling. It keepeth the reason from stifling, the stomach from rambling, the heart from swelling, the hands from shivering, and the sinews from shrinking, the veins from crumbling, the bones from aching, and the marrow from softening."
This hymn to poteen shows the genial spirit in which Irish ideas were received and assimilated in former times by the English colonists, who thus became, according to the words of the chronicle, "more Irish than the Irish themselves."
Such a stimulant was indeed necessary for the people at Hallowtide, when the air was filled with the presence of the dead, and everything around became a symbol or prophecy of fate. The name of a person called from the outside was a most dangerous omen; but if repeated three times, the result was fatal. Birds also came as messengers of fate during Hallowtide, and their appearance was generally a prognostication of evil. Once, at a great lord's house, a white pigeon came for three days in succession and perched on the window-sill, outside a room where the lady of the castle was lying ill. "Oh, my God!" she exclaimed, at last, "that white bird has come for me!" and the omen was fatally true; for before the week was out the young mother lay dead, with her baby beside her, and both were buried in the one coffin.
But it is well to know that if a bird of ill omen should happen to come to the house, such as the raven or the water-wagtail, who is Satan's own emissary, the best way to turn aside the evil influence is to say at once: "Fire and water be on you, and in your mouth; and may the curse be on your head, bird of evil, for evermore."
And further, three candles must never be left lighted at once in the room. If these and other precautions are duly taken against evil spirits, then Hallowtide, or "the month of gloom," may pass over safely, without the fear of a dead hand being suddenly laid upon the shoulder, or words of doom being whispered in the ear by an unseen spirit, while the apples and nuts are piled upon the board for the ancient festival of La-mas-abhal.
(The first Sunday in September.)
This was a great festival with the people from the most ancient times, and was devoted by the Irish to solemn rites in honour of their dead kindred. The garland, or hoop, was decorated the night before with coloured ribbons, but the flowers that encircled it were not plucked till the morning of the great day, and only unmarried girls were allowed to gather the flowers and wreathe the garland, for the touch of a married woman's hand in the decorations was deemed unlucky. Then all the company proceeded to the churchyard, the finest young man in the village being chosen to carry the garland. From the topmost hoop some apples were suspended by their stalks, and if one dropped off during the procession, it was considered a lucky omen for the garland-bearer, a prophecy of long life and success in love; but if an apple fell after the garland was set up in the graveyard, it was looked on as a sign of ill luck and coming evil, especially to those who were dancing at the time; for a dance always closed the festival, after prayers were said, and flowers were strewn, with weeping and wailing, over the recent graves. The Irish nature passes lightly from sorrow to mirth, and the evening that began in tears ended in feasting and dances, while the garland of hospitality was offered to the mourning strangers, who had come, perhaps, a long distance to do honour to their dead kindred.
Sometimes a romance is interwoven with the ceremonial. A widow is seen superintending the making of the garland for her dead husband by the hands of her daughter, the pretty Eileen; while the girl's lover, the handsomest young fellow in the village, is selected to be the garland-bearer. Next day they join the procession to the churchyard, the widow and Eileen walking beside the young man. At times he shakes the pole bearing the garland, hoping to bring down an apple for luck, but none falls. Then the prayers are said, and the mourning is made round the garland, as they place it in the shadow of the old sacred ruin in the graveyard; after which a plank is laid for the dancing at the place where the garland is fixed, and all the youths and the garland maidens commence the dance. But Eileen will not join it, though her lover prays her to dance with him. Still she refuses, saying she must, stay with her mother while she prays. At last, however, she consents, and dances with her lover, looking radiant and happy; when suddenly two apples fall at their feet from the garland, but in the excitement of the dance the evil omen is scarcely heeded. A month after the young lovers were married, and the sign of coming evil was quite forgotten. Yet the evil came; for while out boating with some friends during the week of the marriage festivities, a storm suddenly came on, and the boat was upset. All, however, were saved, except the pretty bride and her handsome husband lover, who were engulfed in the stormy waves, and seen no more; for the ancient signs of good and evil are true and certain, and no one can evade their destiny. As it is foretold, so it must come, be it for ban or blessing.